Historically, the most significant legislation for special education was the

Today, there are many supports that are legally in place to accommodate students with hearing loss, but that wasn’t always the case.

If we were to travel back in time a little over 100 years ago, we would see a sight that would turn our stomachs. A child that had intellectual or physical disabilities would have had no access to school or would have been institutionalized.

The current special education system in the United States is a product of many different events and influences that have occurred throughout the years. Both political and social issues have played a significant role in the evolution of special education. Specifically, the key players have been parent advocates and the civil rights movement.

History of Special Education

In the 1920’s and 1930’s special classrooms began to be created within the schools. Classrooms were created for students who could not keep up with students in the general education class. This system continued through the ’50s. As time went on, negative outcomes became apparent.

Students in the special education classrooms were seen as unable to learn any academic skills. At that time, researchers stepped into to study the effectiveness of special education. Their findings revealed that those students who were integrated into the general education classroom were doing better; learning more than those students in a separate classroom. (Friend, Bursuck 2015). 

As a response, two game changers emerged. Parent advocacy and the civil rights movement changed the way we see our special education system as we see it today. Parents of groups of children with disabilities began to organize and unite. They started to speak out against the traditional practices and demanded that their children had a right to the same educational experiences as other children.

The second influence was the civil rights movement. If separate but equal was unconstitutional for race, it was unconstitutional when it came to ability.

As a result, three laws were created to protect children with disabilities and also to prevent discrimination.

Laws and Regulations

The first law that was created was section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 was created to prevent discrimination against all individuals with disabilities in programs receiving federal funds.

To take the rehabilitation law one more step, in 1990, George H.W. Bush signed legislation called Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA goes beyond the classroom to protect individuals with disabilities in workplaces, buildings, and transportation. Even telecommunications are also required to make accommodations for individuals with disabilities. The ADA is seen today as one of the most significant legislation ever passed for individuals with disabilities (Friend, Bursuck. 2015).

The third law that was created was Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). As a parent of children with hearing loss, understanding IDEA is extremely important.

“As a parent of children with hearing loss, understanding IDEA is extremely important.”

The law was originally established under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 but has evolved throughout the years. Today, IDEA has six core principles that are in place as the foundation of the law.

  1. Free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

Under this principle, students with a disability are “entitled” to attend public schools and receive educational services to address their specific needs. This includes technology, materials, and even set at no cost to the parent. (Friend, Bursuck. 2015).

  1. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

LRE is the idea that students with a disability should not be placed in a separate classroom or school. The goal for each child is to have them in a classroom that will limit them the least. In some cases, a separate classroom or setting will be the best fit for a child, but for most children, the general education class setting will be the LRE. 

  1. Individualized Education

Each child is entitled to their own individualized education plan (IEP). What is fair and equal to one child, will be different than for another child. A team of professionals writes an IEP with the child’s parents.

  1. Nondiscriminatory Evaluation

Nondiscriminatory evaluation refers to the tools that are used for evaluating a student. The tools should not discriminate based on race, culture or disability.

   5. Due Process

The individualized education plan for each child is seen as a legal document and cannot be changed. A specific set of informal and formal procedures must take place.

  1. Zero reject/Child Find

Under this principle, students are protected from being told that the school can not meet the needs of their child and should go to another school. The district is responsible for providing the services.  

What does this mean for today?

There are a number of vital pieces that we walk away with after learning about the history of special education. The first is to know that change is possible. We have come a long way in the special education system from where it was over 100 years ago, but we still have a long way to go.

“We have come a long way in the special education system from where it was over 100 years ago, but we still have a long way to go.”

More horizons are still out there. Support for individuals with disabilities in private schools and universities are still needed. Equipping teachers to know how to teach both mainstream and special education is more important than ever. The fight is not over.

Read more: Teens with Hearing Loss: How to be an advocate for your education 

However, we can learn the vital role that parent advocates play. Parents not only have a voice, but they have legal rights to ensure that their children have a fair and equal education. With knowledge and persistence, parents can make change happen.

Read more: Hearing Loss and School  

All advocates for individuals with disabilities, need to be informed and aware of how any new legislation will impact the access to a fair and equal education. For example, last February, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative serves wrote that Betsy DeVoss, Education Secretary, had a total of 72 guidance documents that have been rescinded due to being “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective.” It has been unclear exactly how this will impact special education. But, as we move forward, it is vital to be vigilant about current events. We need to understand current law, including the rights of those with disabilities and the rights parents have and the impact that changes would have on the rights for ourselves and our children.

Today, there are many supports that are legally in place to accommodate students with hearing loss. Specifically, students are entitled to an IEP under the Individuals with Disability Education Act. Including access to technology such as FM systems at no cost to the parents. The law states that we are not looking for the “best” education, but “equal and fair.” Arguing that an FM system, sign language interpreter, or appropriate seating, are examples of accommodations that can be made to make for an equal and fair education. Even children with mild to moderate hearing loss need access to an FM system in the classroom.

Read more: How to get FREE hearing technology at your university 

Special Educator and advocate, Dr. Jennifer Buss at Lewis University, says the best way that parents can advocate for their children with hearing loss is to see their child as individuals and not compare them to other children.

“…the best way that parents can advocate for their children with hearing loss is to see their child as individuals and not compare them to other children.”

What is best for one child might not be best for your child even in the hearing loss world.

The ranges of hearing loss, type of hearing loss, and personal background will impact each child differently. Inclusion is best for some many, but not all. The way the law is currently set up, each child has their own IEP. Parents have a voice to advocate what they believe is most beneficial for their own child’s education.

Read more: Teaching a Child with Hearing Loss 

Knowing the history of special education in the United States equips parents, teachers, and advocates to be aware of where we have come from.

Our special education system has transformed over the past century, but we still have a long way to go. For parents of children with disabilities, it is vital that they know their legal rights under federal law.

Furthermore, parents cannot underestimate their roles as advocates. Throughout history, they have created incredible and much-needed change in the US education system. Fighting for a child’s right to an equal education might be one of the most powerful roles a parent has. 

Do you have any tips for fighting for your child’s education? Please let us know in the comments!

Melissa Hyder is a mom of three and a lover of life. She loves adventure – from wearing bright red lip stick for the first time, to traveling to an uncharted area. Two of her children were born with moderate-to-severe hearing loss, likely from genetics. They wear Phonak Sky hearing aids, or as they call them, their “Super Ears.”

Which piece of legislation advanced special education the most?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in 1990. IDEA articulates the rights of students with disabilities and the services that must be provided to them in elementary and secondary school. The law helped make schools more inclusive and effective in educating students with disabilities.

What is the most significant legislation for special education in the Philippines?

Save the Children Philippines warmly welcomes a significant milestone for children with and without disabilities in the Philippines as Republic Act 11650 – An Act Instituting a Policy of Inclusion and Services for Learners with Disabilities in Support of Inclusive Education, was signed into law on March 11, 2022.

Which date is most impactful for special education?

National Special Education Day is celebrated every year on December 2! This day commemorates the anniversary of our nation's first federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, signed by President Ford on December 2, 1975.

On what period did the special education program officially started in the country?

Rhode Island opened the first public special education class in the U.S. in 1896. By 1923, almost 34,000 students were in special education classes. In search of training techniques for these children, the schools turned to the institutions. Some institutions expanded their facilities to incorporate "special" schools.